Lessons from Texas

Submitted by AWL on 16 March, 2021 - 5:24 Author: Zack Muddle

As a blizzard of snowstorms tore across Texas in February 2021, many faced energy bills of sixteen thousand dollars for only a few days. And they were the lucky ones. Countless others found themselves without power, having to burn whatever they could to keep warm, having to boil water to sterilise it.

While Hell, Michigan was literally freezing over, an earthly hell was created in Texan prisons. Power was lost, toilets overflowed, food and medicine shortages added to the fear prisoners experienced of falling asleep, lest they didn’t awake, ice-cold air flowing through broken windows into their unheated cells.

A household burned to death as they lost control of attempts to keep out the harsh winter chill. A child froze to death. The death toll is at least several dozen, likely higher. Unsafe attempts at heating have even caused a spate of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Some facing skyrocketing energy prices were told to switch to other energy companies — which wasn’t possible — or to turn off their power and go to hotels. An unusually honest gas company CFO meanwhile recognised that “this week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices.” The traumatic life-or-death struggle of millions meant Comstock Resources Inc. “were able to sell at super premium prices for a material amount of production.”

Jaw-dropping lies from the Republican Texan governor sought to deflect from both climate change and the failures of their energy system. Right-wingers blamed “frozen windturbines” and even a not-yet-existent “Green New Deal” for the problem, falsely asserting that the disaster “just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.”

In reality, fossil-fuels lost nearly twice as much power as renewables, and renewables contribute just 13% to power while fossils fuel the majority. This fight isn’t new: Texas Gas Service undermined 2020 environmental plans in the Texan capital, revising “electrification” to merely “decarbonisation”, and allowing gas to maintain a role.

Texas’s energy system isn’t just broken for the global climate, it’s broken as an energy system. Privatisation and deregulation in a natural monopoly result — much like the US health service — in people paying more money for worse provision of a necessity of life. Despite repeated warnings, power plants — fossil, renewable, nuclear — were not adequately prepared for winter. And what incentive is there for them to be?

Texan energy generating companies must undercut other competitors to sell power to ERCOT, their equivalent of the national grid market operator. Forward planning costs, so in the Texas system it is unaffordable. Even more so if failures for millions of customers will be “jackpots” for some companies’ bosses.

Through the other side of the energy grid — itself in want of technical improvements — the utilities companies that bill, connect, and disconnect people’s homes use predatory contracts which allow daylight robbery when a crisis hits.

These problems were backed up by a “nationalist” ideological commitment to energy independence, not just of the USA from the rest of the world, but also of Texas from the rest of the USA. Texas remained unconnected to the federal-wide national grids.

“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” Gov. Perry, governor of Texas 2000-2015, and US secretary of energy under Trump, asserted. Easy to say for someone who took over $800,000 of state money for a mansion, and who has millions of dollars to his name.

“Energy security” is important, as these disasters have shown. But its counterfeit, nationalist, profit-driven imitation cuts in the opposite direction. Local generation of electricity may provide a safeguard if energy transport into the area fails; but wider — national and international — connections allow support from elsewhere when local energy falls falters.

Unequal impacts

A mere moratorium on energy companies disconnecting customers can be no more than a temporary sticking-plaster to these problems. Energy should be integrated under democratic public control — centrally and locally — and upgraded, electrified, weather-proofed and transitioned to green power supplies.

Other public infrastructure in Texas had been degraded likewise, through privatisation and deregulation.

The storms themselves were driven by climate change; more and more extreme weather events will come as climate change progresses.

Crises like the one which has ravaged Texas drive home the unequal impacts of climate crises. Climate-science-denying Republican senator Ted Cruz flew from Texas to Mexico, running away from the truth at hundreds of miles an hour. Private firefighters are hired by the rich in Calafornia to protect their homes from forest fires.

Yet the real victims of the Texan power outage include working-class people who were forced out of New Orleans following hurricane Katrina 15 years ago, pursued by climate change into their hoped safe refuge.

Undocumented Texans, migrant workers, are hit particularly hard by being cut off from state aid.

How climate change pans out is mediated through the class war. Our class must fight to halt climate change, while simultaneously fighting for adaptations which protect our class from its most devastating impacts.

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